EXCLUSIVE: Cancer-causing chemical dunes found at public beach, but town says it’s harmless

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BABYLON, N.Y. (PIX11) -- Overlook Beach, situated between Jones Beach and Robert Moses State Park on Long Island's south shore, is a public beach that requires a Town of Babylon beach pass to enter during high season. That season begins this week, and demand for beach passes is high.

In the dunes next to the beach's white sand is a darker colored mound, rising up to two and a half stories in some places. The Town of Babylon insists that the pile of dirt is harmless. However, testing of the soil by PIX11 News came to a much different conclusion.

A simple look at the top layer of the mound, which takes up the space of about half a city block, shows that the dirt pile is full of physical hazards. Shards of glass, rusted metal fragments, pieces of hard, sharp plastic, and wood with rusty nails pointing out of it dot the surface.

The hazards of walking on or near the pile, especially for the many children whose families frequent the beach, are obvious. In fact, PIX11 News pointed them out a year ago. But it's what lies beneath the surface that caused PIX11 News to revisit the Overlook Beach site.

PIX11 News took a sample of the soil from the pile to Long Island Analytical Laboratory, the tri-state's foremost facility for the chemical testing of everyday substances. The lab's technicians found more than just hazardous debris in the dirt. They also found hazards that are not visible to the eye.

"Some of these chemicals are listed as carcinogens, and should be handled accordingly," said Michael Veraldi, a chemical engineer and founder of Long Island Analytical.

Not only did his firm's extensive testing find at least a half dozen petroleum-based carcinogens -- or cancer-causing substances -- in the beach dirt sample, it also found some of them in great amounts.

"In this particular case," Veraldi said regarding the substances in the tested dirt, "our minimum detectable [level of carcinogens] would be 40 parts per billion. In your case, we're finding levels in the 1,500 to 1,000 range, which is significantly elevated."

Specifically, for one carcinogen, pyrene, tests showed there to be 1,350 parts per billion (ppb) in the Overlook Beach dirt. Federal inspectors describe pyrene as a suspected mutagen, or substance that causes genetic mutation. Federal guidelines also classify pyrene as a tumor-causing agent.

Those same guidelines, written by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, say that a pyrene level of 150 ppb or greater can negatively impact human health. Our lab analysis of Overlook Beach dirt found nine times that amount, which approaches a level of danger called Protective Action Criteria-2, in which "serious health effects can occur," according to NOAA.

Among other carcinogens found in the dirt sample were 1200 ppb of benzo (b) fluoranthene. Government warnings say that the carcinogen has "been shown to cause lung, liver and skin cancer in animals" at a fraction of the level that our independent testing found.

NOAA guidelines call for immediate protective action at sites where benzo (b) fluoranthene is found of isolating the "area for at least 25 meters (75 feet) in all directions."

But less than that distance from the toxic dirt mound is the September 11th Memorial for the Town of Babylon. The memorial is described as a "place of serenity and remembrance" by the main guide to 9/11 memorials nationwide, the Voices of September 11th.

The Town of Babylon's memorial was built as a tribute to the 48 people connected to the town who perished in the World Trade Center attacks. However, because the memorial is located so close to the dirt mound, it may instead be hazardous to the health of visitors.

Also, regarding the beach dirt, Tom Stay, the commissioner of public works for the Town of Babylon, told PIX11 News, "I think part of it was used as a base for the memorial."

Again, he said that parts of the memorial itself may have been built on some of the dumped, carcinogenic material.

That dumping took place more than a decade ago, long before Commissioner Stay, 32, took the helm. In fact, the commissioner was still in college at the time. However, as head of the public works department now, he explained what the pile of dirt consists of, how it got where it is presently and why it's located on the beach.

"It's a pile of RCA," he said, or "recycled concrete aggregate." It's a substance made up of "usually concrete, asphalt, brick pavers, usually stuff you see in roads," Stay said, "that gets churned up when they're doing roadwork."

"It's a base," he said. "You put asphalt over it. It's a road base."

The town uses the RCA under paving projects in the barrier islands section of the town, which is the same area where the mound is located. That way, the Town of Babylon saves taxpayers "millions," according to Commissioner Stay, by not having to transport the material very far.

The town insists that the RCA is safe in every regard, but PIX11 News asked Stay why there were so many rusted metal pieces, chunks of glass, large sections of ceramic tile and sharp plastic parts in the dirt.

"Ninety-nine percent of that is our RCA that was donated over ten years that we use for projects," Stay said. "If you see something on the top, I'm not going to say somebody didn't throw a beer bottle over the fence and it broke it or something like that, but most of [the mound] is asphalt, concrete, pavers."

After PIX11 News did the story a year ago about the hard, sharp and rusted debris in the pile, the town set up a snow fence around the part of the mound that faces the parking lot for the beach area.

A year later, PIX11 News found different parts of that fence moved aside or down on the ground. "If one of my trucks maybe went in there," Stay said, "he must've forgotten to put [the fence] back up, but I'll have a talk with him."

However, PIX11 News observed Stay himself attempting to put the fence back up and into place himself minutes before our interview with him next to the pile.

Stay also pointed out that, prior to Memorial Day, the volume of people using the beach is low. Therefore, the risk of having somebody access the dirt pile is similarly low. "During the heavy summer season," Stay told PIX11 News, "we close this [area] off" with the snow fence, as a precaution, he said.

He added that the pile is "not really noticeable. We haven't really gotten any complaints in the ten plus years that we've had it."

However, the mound's relatively unobtrusive appearance is why whistleblowers contacted PIX11 News about it in the first place. They said that they were concerned that people -- especially families -- who spend time at Overlook Beach are unaware of the potential hazards.

"I had no idea about it," said Lauren Oak, a mother who was sunning herself on the beach while children played just a few yards away in a beachside jungle gym.

"That it's so close to where we sit here with our kids," said Felicia Endara, another mom, who'd brought her eight week-old daughter to the beach for the girl's first ever seaside visit. "We sit here for hours a day and watch them play. I never knew it was over there, so close. It's ridiculous to hear."

Again, the Town of Babylon insists that the mound is safe, and has always been, for the more than 10 years the dirt pile has been in the dunes of Overlook Beach.

"We work with the companies that we've dealt with," Commissioner Stay said. "These are companies that do a lot of road work, a lot of projects, they're D.E.C. approved, they get permits every year from the D.E.C., the D.E.C. knows about this material, they've looked at it, they've approved it. "

He was referring to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. It has asked for the soil test results that PIX11 News gathered, as part of a D.E.C. investigation into the potential hazards of the pile. PIX11 News has shared our test results with the environmental agency.

The D.E.C. may conclude that the health risks that the dirt pile poses are not great enough to require that the pile be moved. The investigation is ongoing.

However, as Michael Veraldi, founder of Long Island Analytical Laboratory said, regarding the toxicity of the site, based on his lab's testing, "These levels would not be acceptable for a residential [site]. They exceed the [allowable] residential levels."

"Let's face facts," the longtime veteran of chemical testing continued, "counties and towns get away with more things [than] does a private property owner or business, because the towns are not held to the same scrutiny."